Aside from his exceptional broadcast journalism skills, Isaak is a Roots Rock star who recently tracked the Beyond the Sun album and filled it with early rock & roll classics. He's a huge fan of the music, humbled by the presence of Phil Everly and the memory of Carl Perkins.
Isaak's big hit came in 1989 with "Wicked Game," and his songs have also been featured in creepy David Lynch projects, as well as the equally creepy Stanley Kubrick film, Eyes Wide Shut. The video for "Wicked Game" was even directed by Lynch.
In conversation, you realize why his talk show chats went so well: he's relaxed, funny, and gets genuinely excited when he's talking about music. A regular on various "Sexiest Alive" lists, he refuses to believe the hype, even when confronted in a grocery store at 4 a.m. It's impossible not to like this guy.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Wow, that's beautiful. I love that city, so I'm jealous. I'm in Southern California, so I'm not that far from you. But it's not the same thing.
Chris: Can't complain, it's Southern California. You got it good.
Songfacts: Let's start by talking about this new album, which you recorded at Sun Records Studio. That must have been a dream come true.
Chris: You know, if somebody were to ask me if I wanted to make a record there, my smart-ass remark at first would have been, "Why would I go all the way to Memphis when I have a microphone in California?" I had been there before to Sun Studio to just kind of pay tribute in a way, because we stopped the tour bus in the middle of the night as we went past. I said, "We've got to stop, I want to see where it was that Elvis walked in and turned the key and started their rock & roll machine." And so we had gone there and stood out front. But when we came back, we were going through and went on tour, and I went in that room and I clapped my hands. I always clap my hands - I remember looking at a house, I was trying to buy a house years ago, and I would walk in the rooms and clap my hands and the woman said, "What are you doing?" And I said, "I want to hear what the rooms sound like." To me, it's important, because that's what I'm doing - I'm singing all the time. I went in Sun and I went, "That's the best sounding room I ever walked in and heard." I mean, just an amazing sound room. So once I'd heard it, I really was excited by the idea of going in there and singing.
Songfacts: So did it meet all of your expectations?
Chris: Surpass. It surpassed them. It was awesome. If somebody had bought that and made it Rock Co. Corporation, you would have had to go through attorneys to do everything, and it would have been terrible. But we called up and the people were like, "Oh, yeah, we like your music. You want to come record? Okay, well, we do tours during the day, but we could probably knock the last tour off if you could start at like 4 or 5." I go, "Perfect. We're musicians, we stay up late." And they said, "Well, if you get hungry, here's the keys to the diner next door. There's milkshakes and moon pies." They couldn't have been cooler. I said, "Is it all right if we take pictures in here or take pictures out front?" "Yeah, go ahead. Whatever you want to do." It was so un-corporate that I felt like you really did have a feel of very easy-going cool. In early rock & roll there was no Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. There was nobody going, "This is for eternity." They just went, "Let's have fun. We're going to be back there pickin' cotton next week."
Songfacts: Did you sense any of the ghosts of Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis?
Chris: I don't want to say I'm not spiritual, because I think everybody's spiritual if you've got a brain. But I don't go in places and say, "I feel the ghosts." But I have to say whatever it was, when you walk into that room and you're a musician, everybody in my band - all of us - we had so much respect for the artists that had been in that room. I mean, for God's sake, you're sitting in the chair, or you're standing there singing, and you go, "Howlin' Wolf stood right here. Elvis Presley was here. B.B. King played his guitar right there. Bill Black was playing bass there." And all the sudden you're standing there and you're going, "I want to do a great job. I'm going to do the best I can." Because it's kind of out of respect for those guys.
One thing did happen I thought was funny. It wasn't weird, it just made me smile. I was singing a Carl Perkins song, and I always thought Carl Perkins kind of got the short end of the fame. He was really, in some ways, one of the most talented guys out of there, because he was a songwriter and a great guitar player and a great singer. And he had the first big hit. But he never got quite the fame of Elvis or Johnny Cash. He was overshadowed in a way. But I was in there, and we were recording one of Carl Perkins' songs, and I looked up, and as I'm singing, we're recording, there's a picture of Carl Perkins on the wall, and the angle of his eyes and everything, he's looking right at me where I'm standing - and smiling. And it just felt like, "Yeah, we're doing your song. We're digging you."
Songfacts: How cool is that?
Chris: It was cool.
Songfacts: Well, I was reading that you were in VH1's 100 sexiest artists.
Songfacts: And I'm not a sexy person.
Chris: Neither am I, buddy. (Laughing)
Songfacts: Well, I'm looking for some advice. What does it take to be one of the top 100 sexy artists?
Chris: Um, I think what it takes is somebody who's printing, they go through about the first 50, and then they go, "Who else we got? Oh, here's a picture of Chris Isaak laying on the desk. There. We'll make him one." I laughed - I'll tell you something. I mean, I'm thrilled that that kind of stuff happened, because when I was growing up nobody ever said, "Oh, you're sexy." The first thing that people would say when I came to the door was, "Do you box?" 'Cause my nose was knocked off one side of my face, usually, after fights. But one time they came out with some magazine article and they had, "Chris Isaak the world's whatever - America's 50 sexy bachelors" or something like that. And I was in Safeway at like 4 in the morning getting groceries, 'cause I'm always up late at night in that shop when there's nobody around. And some woman in line in front of me, she was standing in line, she picked up the magazine, it was like People magazine or something. She picks it up and she's looking, and there's a picture of me. And she's looking at the picture of me and then looking at me in line - we're just the two of us - and she looked at me 20 times back and forth but never said anything. It was some Chinese woman. And I think she was looking, going, "It looks like him, but all white people look alike." (Laughing) I wish it was so that I was in this imaginary "sexy club," but I don't think so. I think the only people who are really in that club are Brad Pitt and - what's the actor that always has his shirt off? (Laughing)
Songfacts: You got me. I don't really look for guys with their shirts off.
Chris: Me, either. But this guy - there's some actor and every time I see him he's got his shirt off and I go, "Really? Okay. Does he own a shirt?" It's like those guys who look like they spend all their time at the gym and then they have conveniently lost their shirt. (Laughing)
Songfacts: Poor guys. They're forgetful. They're great looking, but they're forgetful.
Chris: Years ago somebody told me, when I was at Warner Brothers, they said, "Chris, you're in good shape. You surf all the time and stuff. You should take your shirt off on stage, the girls would go crazy for you. You should do that." And I said, "You're nuts. I'm not taking my shirt off on stage. I'm a singer, not a stripper." And I'm so glad that I did that, because that would mean that today I'm trying to take my shirt off and people would be crying and running out the door.
Songfacts: Well, the sexy factor I'm sure must relate to "Wicked Game" and the video for that.
Chris: Yeah, I think I got the overflow of Helena Christensen's sexiness and I was painted with the same brush.
Songfacts: That song has just taken on a life of its own. Do you remember writing that song and what was going through your head?
This one I wrote really late at night and it was written in a short time, because I remember that a girl had called me and said, "I want to come over and talk to you," and "talk" was a euphemism. And she said, "I want to come over and talk to you until you're no longer able to stand up." And I said, "Okay, you're coming over." And as soon as I hung up I thought, "Oh, my God. I know she's gonna be trouble. She's always been trouble. She's a wildcat. And here I am, I'm going to get killed, but I'm doing this." And I wrote "Wicked Game": "world's on fire and no one can save me but you." It's like you start thinking about it, and by the time she came over to the house, I had the song written. And I think she was probably upset because I was more excited by the song. (Laughing) I was like, "Yes, you're gorgeous, baby. But listen to this song!"
Songfacts: And she said, "You don't have your priorities straight."
Chris: Yeah. Well, women, I would say, 99% of the time they're going to be able to get their way. My experience is men really don't have much of a chance in any kind of a contest where a woman is involved.
Songfacts: I think you're right.
Chris: They get their way. They're smarter than us and they can cry.
Songfacts: That's right. And we're not supposed to.
Chris: And if they cry, to me that's like all bets are off. "Yeah, it's okay. Whatever you want, here you go."
Songfacts: They know how to use it. I want to ask you about doing the Chris Isaak Show, where you talked to artists, songwriters and such. Did you ever steal anything that you learned from songwriters on that show and applied it to your craft?
Chris: I don't think I stole anything from them. The thing that I took away from that show that was interesting to me is how talented people are in such a variety of different ways. Like there's a roomful of people and they're all artists and musicians, and they're very different types. I don't write like Chicago and I don't write like Smashing Pumpkins, and yet I could listen to their stuff and you go, "Wow, this guy's really talented." And it was really fun for me to see how people did it so many different ways to get there.
Songfacts: Did it broaden your horizons? Did it expand your musical tastes?
Chris: It was always inspirational. As soon as you work with people like that and you get done talking to Smashing Pumpkins, you come off the show, you want to go home and write. You work with Stevie Nicks or Glen Campbell, you want to come home and you want to pick up your guitar and sing. It's exciting. It's exciting to be around people who are talented. If somebody asked me, "Who do you want to play with and who would you like do a duet with?" or something, sometimes I think the things that I would like to do, I don't even think of it as, Oh, this is a money-making business endeavor. Like I'm going to make a record. If somebody said, "Chris, for your birthday, I'm going to have Phil Everly come over and you guys are just going to sing for a couple of hours, just you and Phil and a guitar," I mean, I would be, "Oh my God! That's the greatest present on earth!"
Recently I played on a show and I was kind of hosting on this Buddy Holly special and sang a song. And at the end Phil Everly came up and was in the front and I didn't know - I never know where I'm supposed to stand on those end-of-the-show things. I'm tall and if I stand in the front I block everybody, and I stand in the back I just don't know what to do. I'm supposed to clap my hands and smile? I feel odd. If I'm on stage and I'm not singing, why am I up there? (Laughing) But I was on there and when they did the run-through everybody else was standing in the front and the middle. And come the show time, I'm standing there and all of a sudden I felt somebody kind of push me to the front and I'm standing next to Phil Everly, and he turns to me and he goes, "Sing with me." And I mean I couldn't have been more thrilled. Singing with Phil Everly, even just a couple of lines, that was a dream. The Everly Brothers, to me, are the greatest harmony singers of all time.
Songfacts: Oh my goodness, yeah. I got a chance to see them one time. This was a few years ago, but still amazing.
Chris: To me, if somebody said, "Hey, you could pay $10,000 and they'll come over and sit in your living room and sing five songs," I think it would just be about worth it to hear them, because those voices are so pretty and they've got a craft about their work that I don't think anybody has topped. And I guess I like it also because I've met Phil a couple of times and I thought, He'll never remember me. What a testimony to what a nice guy he is in real life. Because we're standing on the side of the stage, I'm standing there, I'm standing between Phil and James Burton, who, whenever I see James Burton, I feel sorry for him, because I'm just like a puppy, I'm stuck on his heel. I'm like, "And then what happened, James? Where you going now, James? Can I come with you, James?" It's like I love James Burton. He's such a gentleman, too. So James is standing there and I'm talking to James, and Phil came by. And I said, "Hi, Phil. I'm Chris Isaak, we met before." He goes, "I know. How you doing, Chris?" And he goes, "How's your mom?" He remembered that my mom, the last time I'd talked to him, had been sick, and that's been some while ago. And the first thing out of his mouth he remembers. I love this guy. Real guy.
Songfacts: You have a song, "Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing" in one of the creepiest movies I've ever seen, Eyes Wide Shut. Have you been able to get through that movie unscarred?
And it was also neat that that film - and this is kind of esoteric, I don't know if it translates into print - but at the end of that film, the lead character, (Tom) Cruise, has been unfaithful and now he's back with his wife, and she says, "There's something else we need to do." And he says, "What's that?" It's like, F-U-C - you know, that's... it's like, "What?! Huh?" It just stopped me in my tracks. Here's this guy who risks everything because of this drive, and at the end it's kind of like, yes, that's there, it's underneath the surface of all of this. There's these other drives that aren't talked about and stuff. And Kubrick, I loved that he would address those kind of things in a film. And that I got that song in there and Nicole Kidman is dancing naked to it, kind of made my day. I have to say I really like Nicole Kidman; somebody told me they had asked her, they said, "What would you feel comfortable rehearsing to and dancing?" And she brought that song and was dancing to it and Kubrick heard it and went, "That's perfect." So I have Nicole to thank for that.
We spoke with Chris Isaak on November 7, 2011. Get more at chrisisaak.com.
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